Now we are truly ‘all in it together’

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At least they aren’t calling it the gay plague, the way they did with AIDS, or God forbid the paedo plague – they blame us kind folk for everything else, though, so why not the corona virus disease (Covid-19) first identified last December in China?

But stigmatisation of some sort follows closely on the heels of every pathogen, as was observed recently in the authoritative New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). At first the finger was pointed, quite rightly, at Chinese “wet markets”, but this quickly morphed online into generalised anti-Asian racism. Within the last week, though, the demonization has moved closer to home: escaping into the open countryside to enjoy the fresh Spring air and sunshine is suddenly seen as selfish and anti-social. How weird is that?

Not so weird as to be completely irrational, apparently. The logic of ordering us all to stay at home is questionable but this is not a time for mutiny. That is because in this crisis we really are “all in it together”: we are affected not just as kinds, or MAPs, but simply as people. This thing is menacing everyone. It is time remind ourselves that although we at Heretic TOC are an awkward bunch of political heretics and sexual “deviants”, we are first and foremost humans; we need to make common cause with our fellows and acquit ourselves well.

Just to keep things in perspective: latest official statistics (ONS) weekly deaths data (to w/e 13 March) shows death numbers remain a bit lower than usual so far this year. In the year to date there have been 4% fewer deaths than the five-year average, as was pointed out in a recent tweet by a certain Stuart McDonald. It is presumably more than coincidental that there is a leading actuary of this name at Lloyds Banking Group.

So I will be doing my best to stick to the tough new rules for at least as long as I can be persuaded they are roughly in line with the best medical and scientific advice available to government. For Heretic TOC readers in the US, of course, that emphatically will not mean taking President Trump’s word for anything. In the UK, too, the prime minister may be blown off course by political winds. For the moment, though, to be blunt about it, this a time for obeying orders.

As the PM’s broadcast to the nation in the UK this week made clear, that means staying at home for everything except shopping for food and other basic needs, taking very limited exercise close to home, and working away from home only for those in “essential” occupations. These tough restrictions appear to have been imposed reluctantly by Boris Johnson who, we are told, is by instinct a social liberal rather than an authoritarian. All the more reassuring, then, that if even he feels draconian measures are required then there is good reason to believe they are necessary.

That said, this blog does not carry the responsibility that governments must take for their emergency laws and guidance advice. It is no part of the new rules nor of HTOC’s stated mission that this blog must stay “on message”. On the contrary, in common with the media at large, it could almost be said we have a duty to keep our critical faculties alert and challenge government policy if it doesn’t seem to make sense. A couple of commentators at HTOC have already begun to express unease over the opportunity the crisis presents for the illegitimate extension of state control in our lives. I am not going to focus on this danger but neither will I make light of it. Instead I will just urge everyone here, even if you visit none of my other links today, to read Anne Appelbaum’s chillingly informative article in The Atlantic on how a number of governments in Europe and elsewhere are already abusing the situation big-time.

While sexual ethics and behaviour might seem less important right now than hand-washing and social distancing, they do point to a serious shortcoming in any public health strategy that relies on stopping people doing what they really, really want to do, for months on end, or longer. As the NEJM article linked above notes, “Syphilis, one of the great scourges of the early 20th century, could have been ended, in theory, had everyone adhered to a strict regimen of abstinence or monogamy. But as one U.S. Army medical officer complained in 1943, ‘The sex act cannot be made unpopular.’” Likewise, even AIDS failed to eliminate risky unprotected sexual behaviour; it took the advent of antiretroviral therapy to stop that pandemic in its tracks. Getting out and chatting in bars and restaurants, taking part in sport or gathering in huge stadiums to watch it, going to clubs and concerts and a myriad other social activities are all acts which, just like sex “cannot be made unpopular”. Socialising, and simply getting outdoors, are human needs that cannot be suppressed for long.

And you know what, despite Donald Trump being wrong most of the time, he actually had a point this week when he said the cure could be worse than the disease when it comes to shutting down the economy to enforce social isolation. Sure, he only made that claim out of naked self-interest based on “it’s the economy, stupid”. He had been pinning his re-election hopes on a roaring stock market bull run, strong economic growth and full employment, all of which are now well down the toilet, especially on the vital jobs front, with over three million laid off in the US in a single week.

Trump was talking out of his ass and lying through his teeth, as usual, but his “thinking” is in line with the findings of a new study by Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at Bristol University.

If the coronavirus lockdown leads to a fall in GDP of more than 6.4% more years of life will be lost due to recession than will be gained through beating the virus, the study suggests. As reported in The Times, Thomas tells us that keeping the economy going in the next year will be crucial, otherwise the measures would “do more harm than good”. His own full report is all equations, graphs and figures, but the nature of the connection between recession and mortality was spelt out elsewhere in an IMF research paper, The Human Cost of Recessions, that appeared in 2010, after the Great Recession of 2007–09. This showed that in the short run layoffs are associated with higher risk of heart attacks and other stress-related illnesses. Anxiety, depression and an elevated suicide rate form the psychological background to this bleak picture. Even in the long term, the mortality rate of laid-off workers stays at a raised level and can persist for decades. What’s worse, the suffering is passed down to the next generation: children are hurt:

… children of laid-off parents also suffer: in the short-run, parental job loss tends to reduce the schooling achievement of their children….parental job loss increases the probability that a child repeats a grade in school by nearly 15 percent… In the long-run, a father’s income loss also reduces the earnings prospects of his sons… children whose fathers were displaced have annual earnings about 9% lower than similar children whose fathers did not experience an employment shock.

What we do not yet have figures for is the human cost of cooping people up in their homes. But we know what is bound to happen. We know that modern family life typically lacks the social support available to the extended families of old. The less well off, especially, confined to cramped houses and flats without even a decent garden for the kids to run about in, are at high risk of getting on each other’s nerves. Violent domestic abuse is rife even in the best of times and is bound to be a sharply ramped up danger when parents can no longer go out to work and their offspring cannot go to school either. This is a nuclear family under immense pressure, primed for explosion.

Bearing in mind the immense social costs of bringing the economy and ordinary life to a juddering halt  – to say nothing of the trillions of dollars needed to support all those who have been suddenly deprived of a livelihood in the lockdown countries – we really do need to question whether the whole strategy is truly necessary. The Netherlands doesn’t think so. Neither does Sweden. The UK, too, initially appeared to favour – on scientific advice – a policy of keeping ordinary life going for as long as possible consistent with keeping hospital cases down to a level that would not overwhelm health services and incur excessive danger to medical staffs. Making the call as to how long a lockdown could be reasonably avoided was always going to be a very sophisticated and difficult one, drawing on epidemiological models that inevitably include dubious assumptions – it could hardly be otherwise given the unknown properties of  the novel virus causing Covid-19, known as SARS-CoV-2.

But it was arguably an increasingly well established property of SARS-CoV-2 that must have been giving policy makers the biggest headache – a property with a moral dimension and huge political ramifications. I mean, of course, the fact that fatalities are almost entirely confined to those who already have very serious health problems, especially those who are very old and who even in normal times would not be expected to live much longer.

Statistics guru David Spiegelhalter tells us COVID-19 very roughly contributes a year’s worth of risk of dying. Every year around 600,000 people die in the UK. It has been estimated that if the virus went completely unchallenged, around 80% of people would be infected and there would be around 510,000 deaths. So getting COVID-19 is like packing a year’s worth of risk into a week or two. Which is why it is important to spread out the infections to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed. The graph compares Covid-19 mortality and ‘normal’ annual mortality. It shows the dramatic increase with age, and the small excess risk from Covid-19 for people in their 60s and 70s.

The unspeakable elephant in the room here is whether wrecking the economy at astronomic financial and devastating social cost is a good idea just to secure a bit of extra time on earth for clapped out old codgers, many of whom are bound to be rotting away miserably in old folks homes wishing they were dead anyway. Admittedly this is a sentiment a callous young neo-Nazi might heartily endorse but I speak as an old codger myself – no “underlying conditions” as yet, but I am in my mid-seventies, hence in the officially “vulnerable” age range. I value my own life, but I also feel it is reasonable to balance my hopes and expectations for my (probably quite short) future against the disasters that lockdown could bring, as we have seen.

This balancing act is no different, really, from the kind of utilitarian calculation being made every day by health service agencies such as Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). NICE routinely provides evidence-based evaluations of cost effectiveness in relation to drugs being considered for use by the NHS. Often it has to take the not-at-all-nice but very necessary view that a life-saving drug is simply too expensive. Some patients will die as a result of the NHS not buying and providing it. But the judgement is that the money could be better spent elsewhere in the NHS, with the potential to save more lives than would be lost by refusing to approve a very expensive drug.

If you are still in doubt about the need for brutal utilitarian calculations of this sort, and if you cleave to the view that all lives are equally valuable, just try the following thought experiment. What if, instead of killing only old or sick people, SARS-CoV-2 was instead killing only children? Would you seriously insist that this was not a more serious problem? If such a disease had a high rate of mortality, it could even threaten the survival of our species, making the actual SARS-CoV-2 look quite a benign little beast by comparison. Short of that apocalypse, though, the main point surely is that any disease that kills children is one that deprives them of many years – decades even – of expected life ahead of them. So the “brutal” calculation is not a matter of disrespect for the elderly and infirm. If we think in terms of saving not “lives” but “expected years of life”, then saving children would still be heavily favoured over saving the elderly – if harsh reality forces us to choose – while according equal value to everyone’s future life.

And for ourselves, let’s be honest. Much as we might love our grandparents or (in my case) old pals of my own age, our delight in children is such that their loss would be devastating far beyond that of any other medical calamity. Nor are we alone in that feeling: “our” delight is not a feeling confined those of us who find kids especially exciting: it extends to ordinary parents and many other adults who are lucky enough to appreciate their charms.

I’d better leave it there, I think. There is so much more to discuss on what has rapidly become a news story with a thousand angles – I would love, for instance, to get into why the UK and other European governments were so ill-prepared compared to many of those in Asia, why experts were talking about “herd immunity”, and what Boris Johnson was trying to get across with his colourful “squashing the sombrero” metaphor. Basically, the latter was about delaying infections as much as possible so that cases occur over a long period and health systems aren’t suddenly inundated: slowly building herd immunity without killing a shielded vulnerable minority has been seen as a useful by-product of that strategy. It is complicated though. Anyway, there will be time to thrash things out in comments if y’all are up for it. In lieu of getting deeply into these angles at the moment myself, I would just recommend an article by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet medical journal, in The Guardian on all the practical delay and policy confusion.

 

DO AS WE SAY, NOT AS WE DO

Rumours that a cart has been trundled along Downing Street by a refuse disposal officer crying “Bring out your dead!” may be apocryphal, but the news yesterday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty had all gone down with corona virus at the same time is a powerful indication that the plague has struck hard at the heart and (cough, cough!) lungs of government.

Even more than the rest of us, the governing elite are showing themselves to be all in it together, united in their evident unwillingness or inability to follow the precautions they have urged upon the rest of us. Scenes from parliament quite recently, for instance, showed MPs crowding around the Speaker’s chair, blithely ignoring the two-metre social distancing rule. Hardly surprising, then, that Westminster as well as Whitehall has emerged as the UK’s outbreak epicentre, our very own wet market, teeming with slimy, slippery specimens. Among those who have been stricken, along with his girlfriend, Spectator writer Isabel Hardman, is my treacherous former (Labour) MP John Woodcock. One of his lesser crimes was to get me kicked out of the Labour Party. His most heinous offence, though, was at the last election, when he advised his former constituents to vote Tory. In all honestly, I am not exactly shedding tears over his affliction. Like the pestilential visitations of old, it is obviously in his case a sign of God’s displeasure!

One final recommendation, if you have a moment: Tom Peck, political sketch writer for The Independent, takes a butcher’s at “what happens when you ignore your own advice”. It’s a satirical gem on the current hand-washing-with-soap opera. Come to think of it, how about a new TV soap: Corona-nation Street, perhaps, or Westminster Deadenders? Nah, the real political scene is much more entertaining!

Whither the punitive state? Whither go we?

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The final chapter of Roger Lancaster’s Sex Panic and the Punitive State, a book lauded by many heretics, is titled “Whither the Punitive State?”

Frustratingly, it doesn’t really address its own question. While it would be unrealistic to expect firm predictions, or a rousing action plan (“Sex offenders of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your tags!”) all we get is a lame – because also unrealistic – list of “pointers for a sounder public discourse”. What it lacks is any sense of agency: good things would happen if his suggestions were adopted, but there no indication of who is ever going to do so. It is as though Lancaster had been sitting at his desk thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone thought like me?”

But they don’t! Many of his readers, to be sure, may think like him and will benefit from his penetrating analysis of our woeful times, but we are left with little sense of engagement in making better things happen. Perhaps the closest we get is this:

“Concerted efforts by scholars, public intellectuals, journalists, and others could begin to make tabloid culture less respectable.”

But who is to do the concerting?

The political landscape might change if, say, the increasingly huge expense of incarcerating ever more sex offenders becomes unsustainable; in that eventuality, economic facts will have been the driving force towards a new discourse, not the conscious efforts of Lancaster or his readers. But concluding that history is just the working out of blind forces beyond our control might have seemed too bleak a note on which to conclude his book.

Nevertheless, it is one of several difficult considerations we must face unflinchingly if we are to “keep it real” as heretics. Another is whether the existence of a powerful state is necessarily a bad thing.

Marx, Engels and Lenin all asked not so much “Whither the state?” as “Wither the state?”

Friedrich Engels was the first to articulate the idea (which he attributed to Marx) that the state in a socialist society would wither away: the propertied classes needed coercively enforced laws to protect their unfair advantage; once the war against such injustice was won, the state would atrophy from lack of any purpose. But famously this vague “withering” thing, magicking the state away with a wishy-washy wave of Marxism’s rhetorical wand, never happened, either in the Soviet Union or in any other avowedly Marxist society: on the contrary, the state under Stalin, Mao and other Communist leaders grew ever more totalitarian and oppressive without even being efficient.

Likewise, we heretics have our own radicals who quite rightly oppose both “sex panics” and “the punitive state” but fail to propose plausible alternatives.

Recently, for instance, I unexpectedly found myself in a debate with the generally excellent Ben Capel at Inquisition 21st Century. At one time I was somewhat contemptuously dismissive of “unscientific” psychoanalysis grounded in the Freudian tradition. Ben put me right, alerting me to the radically humane potential of such therapy as compared with the supposedly more scientific CBT, which is used in coercive and degrading ways in penal settings.

So I value Ben’s thoughts highly and was pleased when Brian Rothery, editor of Inquisition 21, invited me to respond earlier this month to an article by Ben titled “Cruel and unusual punishment”. He had written that parents, as well as MAPs, sometimes find themselves subjected to unjust treatment at the hands of the state, suffering “harassment from social workers to the point where they are driven to mental breakdown or flight”, then seeing their children taken from them into state custody.

The article was part of an initiative called “The Rallying Point”, designed “to bring together isolated and fragmented groups” to fight back against the exercise of power by a state perceived as heartless and arrogant, blundering and bureaucratic.

I like the idea of rallying together with others who suffer injustice, but nevertheless found myself uneasy over the uncompromising anti-statism. Yes, I thought, social workers can sometimes be excessively interventionist. But should it be ignored that children are murdered at the rate of around one every 10 days in the UK at the hands of their parents, sometimes following unspeakable neglect and cruelty? I think not. What we do not hear so much about, and perhaps we should, are the cases where social workers intervene successfully and children are found better homes with loving adoptive parents.

Ben was unmoved when I made this point, insisting that the state should “withdraw and leave its citizens unmolested” until a whole bunch of tough conditions had been met, such as “until cops and social workers are required to have deep and enduring insight into their own irrational drives and sadistic tendencies”.

But, I asked, would the citizenry be left happily “unmolested”? Or would life be nasty, brutish and short? The Hobbesian nightmare of violent anarchy in the absence of a strong state is no mere imagining, I said, but well grounded in man’s truly savage history. The challenge is how to keep the baby (the rule of law) while throwing out the bathwater (unjust laws and unjust law enforcement). Note that my “savage” assessment relates to our history: prehistoric times are another matter, and I will be coming to those below.

I suggested that human rights law, a recent development, is a beginning.

Children’s rights, too, as I have argued here before, are only sustainable in a context of enforceable law backed by state power. And, believe it or not, those rights are being successfully used in Britain right now as a bulwark against intrusive police inquiries into the sex lives of young people.

How? Through Gillick Competence.

And here’s the context: the big, bad state in full panic mode has resulted in police forces around the country being tasked to hunt down teenagers exploited through so-called “grooming”. Publicity following a report last year that had claimed 1,400 victims in just one town, Rotherham, put pressure on the police and other official agencies to reveal the “true” scale of abuse elsewhere – which in practice meant intruding into the intimate behaviour of many youngsters who do not regard themselves as victims at all.

Gillick Competence, as I discovered obliquely from a BBC radio report, is protecting these youngsters. The Gillick principle, enshrined in a House of Lords ruling, acknowledges the competence of many young people under 16 to make important decisions in their life, including, implicitly, the decision to have an active sex life. This ruling, made in 1986, enables them to get advice on contraception and other sexual matters independently of their parents. That is an important reason why, as the BBC reported, police forces asking their intrusive questions found they encountered difficulty in getting answers from other public bodies, notably the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS is important in this regard because children are likely to be seen by healthcare staff, such as their local doctor, or school nurse, if they are sexually active and need contraception advice or have related medical needs. Thanks to the Gillick ruling, these staffs have been able to rebuff police enquiries in the name of patient confidentiality.

Thus a legal ruling, backed by the force of the state’s laws, is here seen in support of children and against the police. What this tells us is that reliance on a narrative of the oppressive state crushing the individual is hopelessly simplistic.

As for the ignorance and malevolence of police, social workers, etc., it is easy to reject the state that employs them. But then what? Ben talked about the “spontaneous cultivation of informal networks of trust and solidarity between people” as an alternative to state power.

Umm, really? Like a modern love relationship, say, which is a spontaneous coming together of two people who love each other and set up house together? But what happens if they fall out? Who gets the kids? What if one partner is murderously jealous after a betrayal? In the absence of law, it’s every man (and woman and child) for themselves and devil take the weakest.

And so the debate went on. Readers can decide for themselves who “won”. I like to think my logic was strong but persuasion comes mainly through the heart not the head and Ben definitely had a better story to tell in that regard.

In another debate, though, this time with Nick Devin of the Virtuous Pedophiles on the Sexnet forum, the roles were reversed. Nick was characteristically dour, dull and “realistic”, while I was the “romantic” rebel. In an earlier exchange, I had blasted him as being part of the problem, not the solution. He snapped back at my “fatuous” efforts, saying I spend far too much time blogging to “like-minded people” who collectively wring our hands over the unreasonableness of the world at large and accomplish nothing. “Occasionally,” he said “you speak to the press and invite blowback which leads to more derision and hate.”

You can read the full exchange here. Part of my response addressed fundamental aims:

At heart I am a “make love not war” type. I was never a drop-out or a hippie. I am too driven for that, rather than “laid back”. But my vision sort of harks back to the 1970s and invites us to think how we could take the most promising elements of those times forward while ditching the bad, especially the gender inequality and male chauvinism. Having just finished reading Douglas P. Fry’s wonderful recent book, War, Peace & Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (O.U.P., 2013), I am persuaded that the deep prehistory of humankind was not Hobbesian as Steven Pinker and other popular writers would have us believe, and that our future as a species will more and more depend on cooperative strategies rather than the intense competition that has prevailed from the agricultural era onwards. This shift away from extraordinary and often deadly intra-species competition, which arose initially in response to relatively recent Malthusian resource-pressure crises not evidenced in the EEA [environment of evolutionary adaptedness], will be far more compatible with gentler and less rule-bound erotic styles: more bonobo than chimp, if you will. I would argue this as a feminist vision bearing in mind that the erotic governance of bonobo society depends fundamentally on strong female alliances capable of holding males in check.

I admitted, though, that I have little idea of how to plan politically for the achievement of any such exotic utopia – or zootopia! So did I have more rationally defensible grounds for swimming against the tide of public opinion? Something more rooted in the here and now? I continued:

Looking first at the social ills we face in society, there is an urgency to many problems which appears not to concern Nick, or he regards them as a matter for “experts”, people above his pay grade. He wants to help paedophiles deal with the strain of their sexual repression – the hopelessness, the depression, the suicidality – but seems wholly blinkered as regards the social context of their lives. As a result, his remedies are like trying to cure a cancer with a band aid. He ignores, for instance, that the sexually so-called “moral” cultures are the most disastrously violent on earth, as we see from Islamist extremism and kick-ass, gun-toting, America, where sexually repressive, moralistic beliefs are instilled from childhood.

My approach at least engages with discussion of this social context rather than focusing narrowly on “adjusting” the “abnormal” individual to the procrustean bed of a sick society – an enterprise doomed to contribute to the sickness not alleviate it.

Can it be any accident, I ask myself, that all the desperate, at-their-wits-end people turn up at Nick’s door, looking for help he cannot give, whereas the bright, cheerful, upbeat, full-of-ideas folk come to my parties and have a ball…

My blogging for a constituency of “the like-minded” as Nick claimed, is certainly no big deal in terms of what the wider world thinks. Within that constituency, though, something significant does take place… Heretic TOC has a therapeutic function. Sure works for me: despite all the hammering I’ve had in terms of wrecked career, prison terms, missing out on family life, …vilification and sometimes physical attack, you won’t find me depressed or suicidal these days, or drinking too much…

… we are not afraid to critique society vigorously and engage with the media on unapologetic terms. Usually they ignore us; but to dismiss the exercise on that basis as a waste of time and energy is to miss its massive value to us. I fight, therefore I am. To resist is to be alive and to be me… not just the meek, compliant, person our oppressors want us to be.

Back to Roger Lancaster. I started by slagging him off for his lack of answers, or rather his failure to project his own big questions into the future with any conviction. I find Fry’s vision more interesting, even though, bizarre as it will seem to anti-statists, he holds up the European Union as an example of the way forward. He accurately notes that the EU, much derided these days as a corrupt bureaucratic monster, was founded soon after the Second World War in order to secure lasting peace through trade and prosperity.

But for the most part it has worked. It has delivered a peaceful life, backed by relatively efficient governance and the rule of law, for hundreds of millions. Has it resulted in the acceptance of child sexuality and freedom for adult-child sexual relations? No. Is it heading, like national governments, towards risk-averse child “protection” and entrenching a victim culture? Yes. Does the expansion of supra-national institutions like the EU threaten a world monoculture, potentially culminating in the tyranny of the “moral” majority across the globe? Yes.

Does this dystopian vision terrify me? Sure it does. What I share with Fry, though, is the perception that focusing on strategies of human cooperation – strategies developed in our prehistory, as he demonstrates, and now extended into modern statecraft – offer the best long-term hope for a rational, peaceful, future in which loving intimacy for all may be allowed to thrive.

Love and peace, brothers and sisters, love and peace!

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